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Cars | Past Masters

MGB sports car

Fifty years young, this plucky exemplar of classic British motoring design is still a good little runner and more popular than ever, says Simon de Burton.

June 18 2012
Simon de Burton

1962 was quite a year for cars. It produced the Ferrari 250 GTO, the Shelby Cobra, the Lotus Elan and the rather more pedestrian Triumph Spitfire – but, perhaps best of all, it produced the MGB.

The beloved B captured the very essence of the swinging Sixties with its simple style, elegant performance and throaty exhaust note – it could almost have been built for cruising to Carnaby Street. In reality, it was designed as the replacement for the ageing MGA and was the British marque’s first car to feature monocoque construction rather than having its bodywork bolted to a separate chassis.

This made it more solid and gave it the sure-footed handling and entirely modern feel that proved key to its impressive 18-year production span, during which a remarkable 514,834 examples rolled off the line at the MG works in Abingdon, Oxfordshire.

Indeed, looking at a B today, it seems difficult to believe that it was created half a century ago – which partly explains why it is widely regarded as the world’s most popular classic sports car and continues to be a familiar sight on modern roads.

“I am addicted to buying classic cars, but I always find myself returning to the B,” says Oxfordshire-based eco-architect Paul Davies. “As a boy, I remember seeing them on the road and thinking they were far cooler than the flashier Jaguar E-Type. But by the time I was in my late twenties, they were just thought of as another old car and had become very affordable. I bought one and have owned several since; they still hold an irresistible charm, both because of the way they look and the way they perform. They aren’t fast, but they will cruise all day at 70mph. They’re reliable, very simple to maintain and you can buy any part you could possibly need, from a lock for the glovebox to a new bodyshell.”

Geoff Radford, who owns an estate agency in Staplehurst, Kent, is equally enamoured. “I own two MGBs, one I bought in 1981 when it was little more than a year old. The fact that I carried both my children in it in their cots and babyseats, used it for years to drive to work, loaned it to my son when he went to university and, now that I’ve got it back, still drive it on a regular basis probably bears testament to just what a practical sports car the B really is.”

Opinion is divided, however, over which is the best B of all. Purists favour the original roadster that was produced from 1962 to 1967, with its dashboard of simple toggle switches, its pull-handle doors (until 1965) and proper leather seats; others appreciate the practicality of the GT coupe that was introduced in 1965, with its fixed roof, hatchback door and small “occasional” rear seat, which, by modern safety standards, might be considered lethal, despite seeming entirely adequate for children and adults alike in more carefree days.

Most enthusiasts did agree, though, that the B failed to improve with the passing years. As America was its main export market, it had to conform to US safety standards, which saw its power output cut and, worse, resulted in its elegant chrome bumpers being replaced by hefty black rubber items that required an ungainly hike in ride height.

By the late 1970s, sports cars had temporarily lost their charm, the B was showing its age and sales had slowed to a trickle. In a bid to offload the last 1,000 or so, MG produced 580 GTs and 421 roadsters in “limited-edition” livery of pewter and bronze metallic respectively, prior to the Abingdon factory’s doors being closed for the final time in 1980.

As Davies observes, the B became just another old motor – until the classic car bubble that began to inflate in the late 1980s came to its rescue. Suddenly, MGBs were being restored (some not as well as others) and an extensive network of parts suppliers and makers grew up around the world, saving numerous cars from the scrap heap.

Nowadays, many such examples have been restored again, often to a far better standard, and the B is today the most ubiquitous classic sports car on the market – which means that buyers are at liberty to shop around until they find the perfect example. Prices range from as low as £1,000 for a tired-looking, rubber-bumper GT to £20,000-plus for an early roadster in truly superb condition (although £10,000 should buy a belter).

The standard, 1,800cc-engined cars are what most people go for, although there is a following for the rare, factory-built BGT V8 made in 2,591 examples from 1973 to 1976, the aftermarket V8 conversions built by engineer Ken Costello and even the flawed MGC, an unwieldy marriage of the modified B’s roadster or GT body with a six-cylinder, 2.9ltr engine.

Cars with competition history (Bs performed admirably at events such as Le Mans, the Monte Carlo Rally and the Targa Florio) can easily realise in excess of £150,000, while more recent, race-prepared examples are also in demand for use in classic competition.

The nemesis of any B, however, is corrosion – and it doesn’t take an expert to see when one is on its last legs.

“Rust is definitely the B’s worst enemy,” says Richard Monk, general manager of the MG Owners’ Club, which has around 27,000 members worldwide as well as many global affiliates.

“But any B can be saved – British Motor Heritage produces brand new bodyshells using the original tooling, and most other parts are available, so it is possible to make a car that is actually better than new, and many people do so. Even 50 years on, the B remains thoroughly useable, especially since everything is available to keep one running without having to spend a fortune.”

And, if you’d like any proof of the car’s continuing popularity and useability, just cut along to any one of the 50th-anniversary celebratory gatherings that are taking place in the coming months – I can guarantee it will be buzzing… with Bs.

See also

MGB, Collecting